Info freeze thaws after injunction on election law

Michael Gerstein
Associated Press

Lansing — An information freeze on local and school officials is thawing after a federal judge put a preliminary injunction on a new Michigan election law that critics called a “gag order.”

The injunction was a relief to many local and school officials fearful of legal repercussions for distributing information about upcoming ballot proposals. Gov. Rick Snyder had signed the legislation into law early this year.

Some local officials say they’re once again holding public meetings, talking to media and distributing information about some of more than 100 upcoming money-related local ballot proposals up for vote. Others said the law only stopped them from using taxpayer money for mass mailing, robo calls and TV or radio advertising campaigns.

The law confused many. Now that the injunction is in place, some local officials are rushing to spread the word about their city, county, or township proposals.

Dickinson County Clerk Dolly Cook said she’s scrambling to inform voters about 12 proposals. That includes a 911 dispatch millage renewal, a service that can’t function without tax money.

“We do need to get (information) out, like I’m on the radio once a month,” Cook said. “And man, I’ll tell you what, when they put that out I didn’t say a word because you’re looking at a $20,000 fine. I’m glad the injunction is there.”

Benton Harbor Area Schools has a $6.062 million millage renewal request on the ballot. Chief Financial Officer Scott Johnson for the Berrien Regional Education Service Agency said the agency is “seriously considering” sending information about the proposal with the injunction in place.

Superintendents from Pontiac School District and Pittsford Area Schools also say they’re happy about the injunction. The Pontiac School District has a $27.6 million millage renewal proposal over the next 20 years. Pittsford has several bonding proposals that would help fix a leaky roof in a 1939 section of the school, repair old bathrooms and add electrical outlets to classrooms.

The new law stopped them and other local governments from distributing information about upcoming ballot proposals 60 days before an election through mass mailing campaigns, robo calls and television or radio ads. The law was meant to curb the use of taxpayer money to spread biased interpretations of proposals, a practice that supporters of the change called “electioneering.”

U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara issued the injunction about a week ago citing vague and confusing language after 18 plaintiffs — mostly school and local officials — filed a lawsuit against the state and secretary of state over the law.

One plaintiff, Dowagiac Mayor Donald Lyons, said he was concerned about language he thought prohibited the use of city resources for informing voters about proposals.

“What defines a city resource? Am I, as a mayor, a city resource? They’re spending money, and I’m a resource, so does that mean that I can’t speak on this issue?” Lyons asked. “The whole thing was very confusing, and I felt poorly written.”

Some believed it prohibited local officials from broadcasting public meetings or speaking with the media, something Alto Republican Lisa Posthumus Lyons denied.

She sponsored a bill meant to clarify the law after Snyder asked lawmakers to do so in a bill-signing letter last month. Four other lawmakers have bills with similar intent.

House leadership declined to hold a vote on Lyons’ bill Wednesday because they’re taking more time to craft clearer language and make revisions, said Gideon D’Assandro, spokesman for House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant.

“It is unfortunate that at this point, we cannot seem to round up the votes for a bill that represents a good policy between addressing the schools and local governments’ concerns and protecting our hardworking taxpayers,” Lyons said.

State law already prohibited local and school officials from using taxpayer money for outright advocacy, and the secretary of state has only found five such cases in the past three years, according to the Michigan Municipal League, which opposed the law.

It’s unclear what will happen after the March 8 primary as Republican leaders in the House go back to the drawing board with legislation meant to clarify the law.

The Legislature passed the bill in December without public hearings or votes from Democrats.